BOY SODA Is Fighting Existential Crises With ‘BIG’ Vibes

10 March 2022 | 12:01 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"I'm just such an avid overthinker. I always would save myself by zooming all the way out and putting everything into perspective and realising how little everything is."

(Pic by Dexter Lola)

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Sydney's rising star BOY SODA (aka Brae Luafalealo) has been steadily building a profile as a Gen Z pop'n'B rave with successive singles. And 2022 should be his year. Luafalealo has just aired the aptly-titled BIG. But it's a Zeitgeist bop about overthinking and "existential crises", not a flex.

Luafalealo has generated tastemaker heat, and is a bona fide streaming sensation, but he remains an enigma. The Pasifika singer, rapper, songwriter and producer is gradually shedding the mystique about his backstory. Today Luafalealo, donning a grey bucket hat and fluorescent tangerine fleece, chats easily via Zoom. "I'm in the Blue Mountains now, just having some 'me' time and decompressing and feeling all the things that come with releasing a song," he says.

The twentysomething appreciates the tranquility of the natural world. Indeed, he was raised in Terrigal, a tourist town on New South Wales' Central Coast. "Terrigal was a beautiful place to grow up – I was five minutes from the beach." Luafalealo deems it "inspiring just to be able to go and look at a big body of water and remember how small you are in the most humbling way." 

Still, Luafalealo was dreaming about pursuing music in his bedroom. He started singing at a tender age, being enamoured of early Millennial R&B – citing acts like Ne-Yo. "It taught me how to do my runs and how to sing certain ways," Luafalealo recalls. "I think 2000s R&B, just on a technical level, is where I got a lot of things, just from copying the way that they ran up and down scales and how that contributes to emotion at the end of phrases." Even Luafalealo's fave contemporary vocalists revel in that classicism – from the "old school" Ty Dolla $ign and BJ The Chicago Kid to Top Dawg Entertainment's SZA and underrated SiR to Lucky Daye. Recently, he's been vibing to the hip jazz pianist Robert Glasper's Black Radio III.

Curious about the creative process, Luafalealo subsequently took up production – recognising how it complements the vocals. He rues that the input of producers, heralded as superstars in the '90s, is now "underlooked".

In mid-2019, Luafalealo premiered independently with the trap-soul Time For That, duetting alongside the underground mahni. Astonishingly, later that year, he travelled to Los Angeles to open for Dominic Fike at a Camp Flog Gnaw x Converse pop-up show. "I suppressed my nerves until after – I just kind of ignored them, to an extent," Luafalealo admits.

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Last July, Luafalealo announced that he'd joined Warner Music Australia's burgeoning R&B and hip-hop roster – a "fucking dream". On signing the contract, Luafalealo celebrated at a local bar with his team and family (Mum was witness). "I like to keep things pretty lowkey," he explains. "I like my inner circle and I'm very comfortable around them. I like to celebrate my wins with them. I'm not trying to go out and be the centre of attention and be like, 'I signed this deal – everyone raise your glass for me.' I'd rather sit around the circle with six people and be like, 'You all contribute to the way that I hold myself – so, of course, I wanna celebrate my wins with you.'"

Luafalealo ushered in this new phase of his career with the bittersweet romantic ode LOVEU2BITS – very Anderson .Paak. Above all, he's determined to retain artistic control. "This last year, I've kind of been coming around to the fact that I'm also my own biggest fan and the person driving this project and my visions." 

Stylistically, Luafalealo blends supple R&B vocals and melodies with trap drums – the music individualistic but accessible. However, in his lyrics, he explores the quandaries of modern masculinity – expressing anxiety, vulnerability and doubt. Luafalealo's November single, the sanguinely groovy WELCOME TO THE GLOW UP, extolled self-care. "When I release music, I feel like I'm just revealing a different layer about myself – whether it's about the way I'm talking about myself and my experience in the song or different sides of what I'm revealing to my audience and the fans that listen to my music."

Increasingly, Luafalealo has embraced collab culture, notably connecting with other producers. "I love it," he enthuses. "Collaboration is two minds, or more than that, meeting in a space and you get to find out what the product of those two energies is."

Luafalealo has had sessions with the Brisbane grime MC/beatmaker Nerve. "That's my boy," he exclaims. Their exchanges were surprisingly unguarded. "I was so in love with the way he holds himself and the way that he talks to himself and the way that that comes out in his music and how emotionally available and honest he is." Luafalealo is coy about the end results. But he does disclose that, for one track, the pair switched roles on the mic – Luafalealo cutting the verses and Nerve the hook. Ultimately, Luafalealo is happiest in the studio. "I love 'live', I love releasing music, but making music is my favourite part of the whole thing."

Locking down in Sydney during the pandemic, Luafalealo managed to be both productive and positive. "There was a lot of things that were obviously hard about it, but I was also really looking forward to not having anywhere to be and, even if I had to be somewhere, I couldn't," he quips. Luafalealo made music without temporal constraints.

Luafalealo recorded BIG – bouncy R&B-meets-cloud rap – with local DJ/producer Club Angel (Gabriel Espinosa). He didn't necessarily intend to furnish a (post-)pandemic song, but BIG taps into the prevailing existential angst – now heightened by the European war. "I think, as creatives, when we get put into situations like that where we are inside the same four walls, we can get just as creative about some of the unhelpful thoughts as well." 

Luafalealo approached BIG as a conversation with himself – resolving to keep issues in perspective, and stay in the present, while pondering those "unhelpful thoughts". "I'm just such an avid overthinker," he begins wryly. "I always would save myself by zooming all the way out and putting everything into perspective and realising how little everything is.

"When I was in high school, the HSC didn't bother me, because I would zoom out so far that I was like, 'This doesn't matter, I wanna be an artist. I'm learning nothing about doing that at this place and, even if shit hits the fan and I get a horrible mark, it's not the end of the world. There's things I can do to get to where I wanna be.' 

"So that was always like a safety mechanism for me. [But], then, it's a double-edged sword in the same way that I zoom in too close and I get caught up in here as well.

"BIG is probably the most honest song I've released so far, in that sense… It's definitely about perspective and having existential crises and then balancing them and acknowledging all my thoughts at the same time."

Luafalealo reunited with regular director Bailey Watts for the dystopian video. The singer portrays an aquatic alien emerging from a lake, a giant planet visible in the daytime sky. On the BOY SODA YouTube channel, a fan wrote, "Good song don't understand the clip," to which Luafalealo responded drolly, "neither smh." But, he affirms, there is a narrative. "I'm on this plane and I don't come from here, because I'm from a different planet almost. It's like, 'What am I doing in this reality?'"

The cinematic visual is a nod to the 2021 sci-fi epic Dune, but evokes, too, the future nostalgia of the 2010s post-apocalyptic YA flicks The Hunger Games and Divergent. "I always liked those series – the way that they seem so otherworldly, but they're actually a reflection of the world we live in now," Luafalealo agrees. "I like that distance and that closeness at the same time."

Luafalealo praises stylist Dexter Lola, who designed his striking costume, complete with prosthetic gills, in seven days. "I played a lot of [the video game] Halo when I was younger and I just want that desert kind of warrior vibe," he says of the brief. "Then [Lola] had this androgynous vision with Constantine as a reference and the angel – and I absolutely loved that."

Into fashion, Luafalealo enjoys developing his image – pop music about aesthetics as much as the sonic in the digital realm. "I think, just as an artist, we like to curate everything about our lives. I like to curate what my drive to work sounds like. I like to curate the colours and the silhouette of my body – and that makes me feel good."

Luafalealo has long teased an EP. Yet, again furtive, he's presently focussed on promoting BIG. "I'm really proud of it – and proud to say that I'm proud of it as well, because I feel like I don't acknowledge those things enough, where I have really high standards. But, fuck, I love this song."

In the meantime, Luafalealo is easing back into live performances. Next month he'll play his inaugural headlining gig at The Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney, ahead of the forum's closure. "It's such a beautiful, iconic venue in Sydney and obviously [it's] so devastating that we are losing another space for art to thrive and be alive in and exist in," he says.

Regardless, Luafalealo promises a memorable night with his band. "We just got high energy. I like to sing. I like to rap. I have an amazing guitarist and amazing MD [Music Director] and drummer and we have a lot of fun on stage. I think, if we're having fun on stage, people don't have an option but to have fun with us. 

"You're gonna hear me talk about myself. I always talk about songs as like conversations I'm having with myself. So come and listen to some of my conversations. I'm just grateful that people wanna show up to hear them."

As he prepares to return to his mountain retreat, Luafalealo laughs at the notion that The Lansdowne floor may buckle, as it did for Genesis Owusu at the Enmore Theatre the previous evening. "That's some rock star shit! Genesis is a force to be reckoned with. I guess the floorboards lost the fight last night."